LOS ANGELES: US President Joe Biden heads Wednesday to a Latin America summit on a mission to woo back the region as his administration pledged greater economic cooperation, investment and a program to train half a million health workers.
Biden is hoping to cement ties with a region long seen by Washington as its turf but where China has quickly emerged as a leading investor, although the administration has focused on modest progress rather than sweeping proposals.
“We need to demonstrate,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Tuesday at the weeklong summit, “that democracies can really effectively deliver for their citizens.”
Hours before Biden was to arrive, the White House announced a new Americas Health Corps that aims to improve the skills of 500,000 health workers across the region, building on the lessons from Covid-19, which hit the Western Hemisphere especially hard.
The health training will cost $100 million, although the United States will not contribute it all and will seek to raise funds, including through the Pan American Health Organization, an administration official said.
China has stepped up its role in Latin America during the pandemic, moving early to supply vaccines, and US nemesis Cuba has long exported its state-employed doctors.
Biden will separately announce plans for a hemisphere-wide “economic partnership,” although there were few concrete commitments as part of it.
The announcements comes a day after Vice President Kamala Harris detailed $1.9 billion in private-sector investment in impoverished and violence-ravaged El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
The troubles in the so-called Northern Triangle, as well as Haiti, have generated a soaring number of migrants to the United States, setting off a domestic furor as Donald Trump’s Republican Party demands efforts to stop them.
Trade deals lite
The Summit of the Americas is the first in the United States since the inaugural edition in 1994 was held in Miami under Bill Clinton, who proposed a free-trade zone that would span the hemisphere other than communist Cuba.
The White House billed Biden’s summit as an update to Clinton’s vision. But the US political mood has since dramatically soured on free trade, with Biden’s predecessor Trump rising to power denouncing liberalization as harmful to US workers.
The Americas Partnership for Economic Prosperity, to be announced by Biden, will look at coordinating on standards and supply chains but will not offer new market access - a key incentive offered to the region by China, with its billion-plus consumer market.
Stronger supply chains will help “our hemisphere reduce overdependence and concentration on certain countries,” another administration official said.
Biden last month similarly unveiled an Asian partnership on setting economic standards as he visited Tokyo.
But unlike in Asia, the United States already has free-trade deals with a number of major Latin American nations including Mexico, Chile, Colombia and Peru.
The official said the new partnership would start with “like-minded countries,” without naming them.
While hesitant on free trade, Biden has stood firm on another core principle of the original Summit of the Americas - democracy - even as he considers going next month to Saudi Arabia, a critical oil supplier.
Draining US diplomatic energy ahead of the summit, Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador refused to attend as he insisted that Biden invite the leftist leaders of Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela, shunned on the grounds that they are autocrats.
Biden is separately expected to meet President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, Latin America’s most populous nation, despite rising fears that the Trump ally will not accept the legitimacy of upcoming elections.
Mauricio Claver-Carone, the president of the Inter-American Development Bank, said that Latin America can increasingly be seen as a “sea of peace” for investors amid the global turbulence from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and rising risks associated with China.
The head of the bank, which provides development funding in Latin America, said he saw a rise of “nearshoring,” with businesses moving closer to markets instead of to China.
Since the first Summit of the Americas, “each dollar that went to China was one dollar, one investment, one job less for Latin America and the Caribbean,” he told AFP in an interview in Los Angeles.
In Latin America, “whether they are governments of the left or the right, they all want foreign investment, they all want nearshoring, they all want economic growth,” he said.